Contemporary design is dominated by western brands and culture, but that may all change with the launch of the e-commerce platform Vermillion. We talk to the company’s founder and CEO, Krizia Li, about why it’s high time to shine a light on Asian design and artistry.
You could say that Asian design is already well integrated into modern-day interiors, what with popular trends such as the resurgence of Chinoiserie or the hybrid aesthetic of Japandi, a Japanese and Scandinavian style combination that’s recently gaining momentum. And while this does seem to embrace Asian design, it really just feels like Asian culture seen through a Western lens and, to be quite frank, doesn’t even come close to reflecting what the entire continent of Asia has to offer.
This is where Vermillion, a business-to-business e-commerce platform that focuses on showcasing Asian designers and creators, hopes to swoop in and give Asia its rightful place on the global market. Named after the deep shade of scarlet red historically used in Taoist culture
as the colour of life and eternity, Vermillion curates products from across the region, spanning Greater China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India and the Philippines. The online platform works with Asian brands, aiming not only to be a window on Asian design but also plans to conserve and convey the region’s heritage and artistry through its curation of products.
To Vermillion’s founder and CEO Krizia Li, this warm vibrant hue also represents the dynamic energy of emerging Asian designers. “It’s a very symbolic colour and we’re imagining rivers of this pigment where everyone comes together and the energy flows,” she says. “It’s a colour with artistic and cultural connotations that tie in very well with the mission,” which is to elevate Asian design and revolutionise the face of luxury wholesale.
Hoping to become the “Farfetch of Asia”, as Li puts it, Vermillion is an all-digital platform that simplifies the sourcing experience with the support of proprietary big data and AI analytics, all without the need to travel or navigate shipping logistics. “We also benefit from having new brands coming in constantly. We regularly update our assortment and we’re always grooming it so we can bring new or fresh things to a client at any time.”
But that’s not all. “The platform also helps people discover lesser-known, but very high-quality brands. It’s the ateliers and workshops that we think deserve more recognition and attention but perhaps don’t have the resources, language skills or network that go beyond their own borders. These brands are very active domestically, but maybe not so much internationally. So, the idea is to help these brands scale up.”
Li runs through her rigorous curation process, which starts with local team members on the ground who act as filters in all key regional markets, followed by a vetting committee that decides whether new brands fit the portfolio and, finally, a curatorial panel of industry professionals to get feedback on products and price points. She takes a deep breath. “It’s also about having faith and trust in the brand partner to uphold the same values as we do.” Vermillion looks at each and every brand as a long-term partnership that will grow and be fruitful over time. “I’m not just like working with you for what you have today. I’m working with you for where you’ll take us in the future. I want to be on that journey with you.”
This careful curation enables Vermillion confidently to showcase both notable designers and those yet to be discovered by an international audience, such as Maison Lumière, a Qing Dynasty-inspired jewellery designer from Shanghai and DaMoon, a Korean tableware designer utilising traditional techniques, among many others. Esteemed creators include the likes of award-winning designer Alan Chan and Hong Kong artist Stanley Wong, otherwise known as Another Mountain Man, who also designed Vermillion’s logo, as well as the internationally acclaimed Hans Tan Studio from Singapore and Monmaya from Japan, which has been making small-batch furnishings including warrior chests for more than 140 years.
To find out how Li got to this point, we go back to her studies and experiences. Born and educated in the UK, Li came to Hong Kong to work in investment banking before falling in love with emerging markets. “I didn’t want to be in super-mature markets like Europe and the US, where everything is already very established. I love the nitty-gritty of the up-and-coming along with all the uncertainties… I just want to dig and find hidden gems in their raw form and then make them beautiful.”
Asked why she started Vermillion, Li recalls her days in branding and marketing management, when she discovered a token portfolio of Asian products at a certain luxury travel retailer. It included the likes of cosmetics brand Cha Ling L’esprit Du Thé, the Chinese winery Ao Yun and Shang Xia from Hermès. “Big European groups were starting to invest in a handful of Chinese brands to help internationalise them. But that effort was very fragmented and not coordinated,” she explains.
“Asia is producing more than 80 percent of goods in the world, so why don’t we have our own intellectual property or original designers and why aren’t we getting any recognition?” She has a point. It’s long been considered true that Chinese industrial manufacturing is more advanced than that in the West and the lower costs enable larger volumes and, in some cases, a more diversified offering. In Li’s opinion, “We don’t have to sell to someone else. We should just be big on our own and get the due recognition and appreciation for it.”
Encouraged by the success of Japanese and Korean brands that have established themselves in the market by celebrating their cultural heritage and making use of their technological advancements to create high-quality products, she asks, “Why shouldn’t the rest of Asia follow in the footsteps of Japan and Korea?”
Nonetheless, Li believes it’s much harder to achieve this, due to numerous Asian brands choosing to make mass-market, generic creations. A consequence of this is the blanket reputation of producing cheap, low-quality products. In a bid to eschew this, she articulates that “building a market for the future means you should have quality goods that earn market share. This is how you’ll get respect from your peers and how you can open the market – or make the pie bigger for everybody. Then you can start introducing all the emerging smaller brands. They just need someone to go ahead and pave the way for them as a luxury leader.”
Hoping to forge this path, Vermillion’s business model starts with B2B. “This is how you get industry recognition. You can impact a lot of people at the same time by getting into a position of authority and being accepted by the right people. Then there’s a trickle-down effect.”
Another great challenge for Asia is originality. “We’re decisively helping Asia to move away from copycats,” she says. “You need unique intellectual property in order for people to see you as a thought leader. There’s a price on originality, and Asian designers have very different points of origin, life stories, narratives and experiences, which have so much value in the world of diversity.”
For Vermillion, interior decor is just the beginning. The growing platform is looking to explore and expand its portfolio with lifestyle products that include skincare, food, and wines and spirits, among other items. Looking to the future, Vermillion also hopes to launch its business-to-consumer offering soon, with a select collection of brands carrying products such as candles, fragrances, artwork, and table- and barware, which make sense for the individual buyer. The company also aims to host retail pop-ups around the world, whether at international design fairs or through local collaborations in Hong Kong.
Her eyes bright and sparkling, Li also says she hopes to build a wider community, not just to connect designers with their clients but also with other designers and in other countries – for instance, a distillery in Hong Kong might want to work with a metal sculptor in Thailand and a glassmaker in China, and so on. “Our platform is a really quick way to connect all of the players in the whole ecosystem. That’s the bigger picture,” says Li. “That’s where the magic happens.”
(Top image: Maison Lumiere; All images courtesy of Vermillion)